4 factors for calming Afghanistan’s ‘perfect storm’

Posted July 15, 2009, at 6:56 p.m.

The rugged terrain and tragic history of Afghanistan have generated a colorful range of analogies and aphorisms, many from the fateful “Great Game” played out between Britain and Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

There’s Lord Curzon’s memorable 1907 lecture on “the razor’s edge” to describe how the life and death of nations can stem from poorly marked borders — apt for how the Durand line divided tribal and ethnic groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There’s the gruesome image of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Young British Sol-dier,” “wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains.”

But the most fitting description of the volatile condition of Afghanistan 2009 is the recent remark of a British soldier that counterinsurgency efforts in southern Helmand province are like “mowing the lawn.”

Lacking sufficient manpower and resources to clear Taliban insurgents, secure a town and build specific projects and trust, the soldiers are forced to cut the lawn again and again as insurgents keep “growing back.” Fifteen British soldiers have been killed recently in Helmand where their own defense secretary once predicted they could restore order “without a bullet fired.”

Similar dramas have been playing out across Afghanistan since the disastrous decision of the Bush-Cheney administration to ignore Afghanistan and attack Iraq allowed the Taliban and al-Qaida to return in force to the country that produced the Sept. 11 attacks.

Georgetown professor Seth Jones describes the once-again unstable state of affairs in Afghanistan in a new book, “In the Graveyard of Empires.” Based on extensive interviews, Jones retraces the Soviet intervention, civil war, al-Qaida’s presence, the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom and the Taliban resurgence.

Jones’ book and another excellent work by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, “Descent into Chaos,” document the failures of the Bush administration to follow up on the successful intervention after Sept. 11 and the duplicity and incompetence of the Pakistani government of Pervez Musharraf. They describe what Jones calls “a perfect storm”: weak Afghan governance, Taliban renewal with the help of Pakistan’s intelligence services (eager to use the Taliban against archrival India), and the Bush turn to Iraq and refusal to put conditions on $10 billion aid to Pakistan.

After a lengthy strategic review, the Obama administration has moved to substantially increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and, with Pakistani consent, occasionally hit terrorists in Pakistan.

Obama’s escalation faces daunting challenges if the U.S. and the West are to regain the initiative in the region and restore a reasonable degree of stability. Four critical factors are:

1.) The effectiveness of a new strategy that focuses on counter-insurgency — not a “war on terror.” Gen. Stanley McChrystal correctly emphasized building trust and support among the civilian population in his “Commander’s Guidance” to the International Security Assistance Force.

The stiffest challenge will be to overcome the antagonism of Afghan people in many rural provinces where civilian deaths and the failures of reconstruction aided the insurgents.

2.) Ending the Taliban-al-Qaida sanctuary in Pakistan. The new government and military in Pakistan seem to have been jolted into a more realistic view of the insurgency. Marvin Weinbaum, a leading expert, says the Taliban “overplayed their hand” this spring after a truce with the government in Swat valley. “The government and military suddenly realized that they themselves might not have a role if the Taliban gained ascendance elsewhere.”

3.) Building an effective government in Kabul — one capable of leadership, power-sharing with regional governments and training a viable army and police. President Hamid Karzai appears set to win re-election, but he must strengthen the bureaucracy, spur economic growth and reduce rampant corruption and a pervasive drug trade.

4.) The readiness of NATO allies to continue their support for counterinsurgency operations and institution building in Afghanistan — often not widely supported at home despite major terrorist incidents in Europe. Too many European governments, in particular Germany, are restricting their soldiers from direct combat. Despite high troop levels, Britain’s defense allocations are ridiculously low.

All this sounds familiar – resembling a stage in the Vietnam War. For all the parallels, there are key differences. With hindsight, the stakes are actually higher: bringing stability to a region that has spawned terrorists with a global ambition. Second, the context is more positive. Other than a weak Pakistani government, surround-ing countries, including Iran, are not eager to support the Taliban and al-Qaida, and more pressure could be exerted on their sources of money and arms.

An unknown factor is the patience of the American people. Weinbaum is concerned that expectations here are too high. “It’s going to take a long time, and our goal should be a minimally effective government in Kabul that can protect the state and prevent the re-establishment of terrorist bases.”

Fred Hill, of Arrowsic, reported from Europe, Africa and the Middle East for The Baltimore Sun, and later worked on national security issues for the State Department. His e-mail is hill207@juno.com

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